As was the case with Goldsworthy’s previous biographies of Julius Caesar and Antony & Cleopatra, this is an eminently reasonable and balanced re-telling of the life of Augustus. Goldsworthy knows the sources and their agendas, and so negotiates a position that acknowledges their biases, both positive as well as negative, and accepts that what we know is, sometimes, a function of how we know it.
He writes easily and sets Augustus in his context: his birth in 63 BCE, for example, takes place in the year that Cicero is consul and when Catiline is forming his so-called ‘conspiracy’. The book follows Augustus’ life closely from his unspectacular youth through the civil war years and, after Actium, his consolidated position as princeps.
Goldsworthy is particularly at home in the battle scenes which he recounts with relish. And the second half of the book which traces the dark and frequently fraught family life of Augustus and Livia (more popularly known via Robert Graves’ I, Claudius and its sequel) cuts through some of the more lurid stories.
Augustus, as Goldsworthy points out in the introduction, has had a mixed reception: up until the twentieth century, he was usually seen as the benign imperial ruler who could almost be at home in Victorian England. Since Ronald Syme’s game-changing The Roman Revolution written in the 1930s, though, he has more often been regarded at a military dictator and unscrupulous master of propaganda. Goldsworthy doesn’t – and can’t – deny the latter charge, but there is the sneaking feeling in this book that he has more of a soft spot for Augustus than I, for example, do.
Despite this, the book itself is balanced and moderate, and doesn’t play down the contradictions in Augustus’ life story. It does a good job of speaking to both an academic audience who may enjoy comparing Goldsworthy’s Augustus with their own, and a general popular readership.
(This review is from an ARC courtesy of the publisher)
on 1 May 2016
With the title "Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor" I was hoping for something approaching a biography of this iconic Roman. Unfortunately, it's little more than a dry political history of the early Roman Empire, that does nothing to answer questions about the man Augustus himself.
And as Augustus was of little political importance during the first 18 years of his life, we learn almost nothing about it. Instead, during the opening hundred pages, Goldsworthy focuses almost entirely on Julius Caesar and Cicero. I can accept the need for context, but this reduces Augustus to a footnote in his own history.
Even Agrippa, whose name is inseparable from Augustus, doesn't even appear until a third of the way through this book, and that's only because he happened to command the Battle of Actium against Anthony and Cleopatra. Agrippa gets some coverage later on, but Goldsworthy probably spends more time focused on Judea, Herod, and the possible birth of Jesus, than on the life-long friend of Augustus.
No doubt there's an argument that the historian cannot speculate - Goldsworthy derides it when faced with answering personal questions about the man. And yet appears dedicated to naming every single Consul during the reign of Augustus, even though he has to preface much of this with words like "maybe", "perhaps" and "possibly".
Additionally, Goldsworthy generally covers events in chronological order, but not always, resulting in some frustrating backtracking as he realises he needs to provide more information on a previously covered subject.
Overall, if released last century, no doubt the book would have been highly lauded. But history has since moved on - we want to know more about the ordinary people, and experience insights about them. Instead, Goldsworthy refuses to acknowledge Augustus as a man, only a politician.
In that regard, this relegates the entire book to being little more than a particularly detailed political history of the early Roman Empire - and offers almost nothing new, or insightful, about Augustus himself, despite the book title.
Goldsworthy is, I think, the best living writer on Rome. His books, which are at once a pleasure to read as well as at the cutting edge of current scholarship, never disappoint. In this book, he takes on the man who completed what Julius Caesar, his great uncle and adoptive father, might have had in mind (or might not have). When compared to Julius, Augustus is far less interesting in appearance: he is cautious rather than bold, not a military man of genius but a delegator, somehow just bland. Nonetheless, Augustus was a builder of institutions and a molder of society in the very deepest sense, bringing stability after nearly a century of upheaval and the author of images of power that would survive as the principal model of government until the 19 C CE. And, apparently, he died in his bed.
Augustus was born Octavian into an aristocratic family, whose mother was Julius Caesar's niece. Aside from that, there was nothing to particularly distinguish him outside of his own ambition. He was sickly and the times were in terrible upheaval: the institutions of the Republic were badly blocked, with factions able to easily veto the actions of their opponents through multiple channels; with depressing regularity, civil war broke out, decimating the ruling classes of talent. The titan of the era, of course, was Julius Caesar, who beat Pompey, Cato, and many other enemies to achieve dictatorial power. Once assassinated, Cicero and a new generation emerged to reclaim power, including Marc Antony and, at the age of 19, Octavian, who surprised everyone by being named Julius' heir and adopted son in his will (and re-named Octavius). After a long struggle, Octavius eliminated all his rivals and reigned unopposed for 40 years. While this is not by any means a boring life, Augustus attracts less scholarly and popular attention than many other figures. This, Goldsworthy proves, is a mistake.
First, Augustus effects an institutional transformation. Goldsworthy argues convincingly that this was not a visionary undertaking, but one of improvisation and expedience. Giving up completely on the power-sharing of the Republic, which had been failing in gridlock since the Gracchi brothers 100 years before, Augustus essentially monopolized power but maintained the appearance of the traditional institutions. He was "first citizen", elected often to the consulship, but preferred to play the powerbroker in the background with others as figureheads under his control.
He became, in effect, a military dictator - with control of the armed forces, which answered directly to him instead of to the Senate. In this way, he could impose order after 50 years of regular, increasingly savage, civil wars, beginning with Sulla. At his death, he had sewn the seeds of a monarchy, reversing nearly 500 years of experimentation with a republican form of government that was relatively democratic at times. He may even have believed that these changes had provided for orderly transfers of power, though as we know, this was only partially successful. Nonetheless, it provided the essential model for government all the way to the Enlightenment.
Second, he fundamentally altered the political balance in Rome. This was accomplished for the most part by proscription of everyone who opposed Augustus, starting with murder and expropriation in cahoots with Marc Antony, and later in softer versions of exile. The net effect was to wipe out almost entirely the old senatorial aristocracy, leaving more compliant descendants or new men in their place.
Third, employing his trusted and brilliant side kick, Agrippa, he mopped up a vast array of military conflicts and internal rebellions. Augustus knew he was not a great general or warrior, so he had the sense to rely on an impeccably loyal subordinate, who did not have his kind of ambition. In the end, the Empire achieved stability over a vast area, almost its maximum extent; in accordance with Augustus' policy, it should remain stable and consolidate itself rather than expand.
Fourth, he began a process of professionalization of the administration, installing bureaucrats for longer periods of time than had been possible in the Republic, which sometimes changed administrators once per year, when the new consuls took office. Aristocrats still occupied most positions, but there was a new rigor to who was allowed to serve. Heretofore, Rome had governed more as a city state, dominating the periphery with blatant corruption and nepotism. I do not mean to exaggerate, but he initiated a process that took centuries to refine and work out.
As the self-styled "father" of the country, Augustus sought to impose a kind of moral order on Rome. Aided by Maecenas, another of his loyal aides, Augustus mastered the use of propaganda for this purpose. Nonetheless, his daughter and adoptive children essentially made a mockery of, in what can only be called a personal disaster of epic proportion. It was the start of a kind of conservatism that truncated the diversity of morals and literature that characterized the Republic. While there were many official masterpieces during his reign, some believe that culture and society lost something.
Goldsworthy is conservative in the interpretations that he offers, always sticking to what is irrefutably provable and refusing to speculate on the gossip that advanced such rumors as the murderous nature of his wife, Livia, or the rivalries of his heirs. As such, we do not get any confirmation of the colorful personalities and motivations in popular fiction (e.g., I Claudius) or even in certain contemporary sources such as Suetonius. He also refuses in many instances to render judgments on what it all meant. In my view, at its worst this orientation airs on the side of the driest scholarship, making the read less fun and interesting.
I recommend this as an essential source for anyone interested in Rome, in the history of government and imperial institutions, in politics as an art form. It is as first rate as anything that Goldsworthy undertakes. The research and writing of this took at least 2 years, and it shows.
on 7 May 2016
Having read a great deal of books on Roman history recently, Adrian Goldsworthy's account of "August" was top of my Christmas list. My initial perception was that this book was a massive disappointment with the first 200 or so pages given to expertly researched accounts of the political machinations prior to Caesar Augustus's rise to become Imperator. The book does detail a lot of the same information from Tom Holland's and the extensive and detailed account of a confusing array of characters including the tiresome Mark Antony made this effort heavy doing. I was also really disappointed that the account was effectively a straight forward historical narrative with scant regard to the archaeological record to support some of the arguments. All in all, the first third of this book did seem remote, impersonal and a bit dry. There is almost a sense of this author solely writing for the benefit of other academics.
However, once we arrive at the point that Augustus emerges as the victor of the Triumvir the book becomes increasingly more interesting. The politics still remain a substantial element of the narrative yet the story of Augustus is fleshed out with information about building projects, contemporary poets and military campaigns. The density of detail sometimes obscures the sweep of this biography and the similarity in names as well as the continuing adoption of various relatives as "sons" does make the account a bit confusing. In the end the amount of information that is accumulated wins out so that Augustus emerges as a real person and , in my opinion, a dictator who initially gained power in the most ruthless fashion yet emerged as a one of the most important political figures in history. The author demonstrates his impact through such things as the ubiquity of coins bearing his image or buildings erected in Rome under his direction. As the narrative advances towards the years AD and incorporates increasingly familiar aspects of Roman history, the book became far stronger and much more compelling. Certainly this book gets easier to read as the story progresses and the earlier chapters should be "toughed out" to appreciate the strength of this author's argument regarding just how significant a figure the first Roman Emperor Augustus was.
My initial thoughts about this book were that is was a very accomplished and thorough piece of work yet the absence of an archaeological account to supplement the narrative weakened the argument. Although this short-coming is not entirely addressed , I am glad that I persevered with the book as the second half is compelling reading and, more importantly, managed to make sense of my cloudy knowledge of Roman history prior to the invasion of Britannia in 43 AD. Being a frequent visitor to the Gallo-Roman museum in Lyon (one of my favourite museums) I was pleased that this book helped explain not only the dubious character of Lugdunum's (Lyon) founder Plancus but also elaborated upon how these new cities dove-tailed into the grand scheme of Roman life.
In conclusion this is a book that is very much a traditional history book outlining the life in detail of someone Goldsworthy argues was one of the great figures in antiquity. The book is supplemented by a number of family trees and a list of the key personalities which is essential to keep track with who is who. The glossary of terms is equally useful in assisting the reader and an appendix which raises the some serious questions about the nativity of Jesus in the context of a supposed census by Augustus presents a fascinating contrast with the wealth of information about the Emperor
and the unreliable and conflicting historical narrative within the gospels of Mark and Luke.
on 7 March 2016
A superb read. A history which is as accessible as a novel. Crammed with information and detail. However, what sets it apart from most histories is that the author willingly puts his hand up to admit when the evidence for a part of the narrative is absent or ambiguous before providing his expert assessment of the various situations.
Augustus is a massive character who ruled for a significant, but not brilliantly documented, period so a comprehensive history is a daunting challenge. Goldsworthy more than meets that challenge.
on 29 January 2016
This book is both academic and readable. It is impossible to get inside someones head after 2000 years however Goldsworthy presents a convincing, well argued account of Augustus' career and his relationships with his family and others. I disagree that this is 'a book to dip into' - it needs to be read fairly quickly in order to appreciate the sweep of history ... and it is quite some history.
on 8 September 2015
details the early life of octavian who was to become
the first roman emperor , adopted by julius ceasar he became the roman
republics/ empire one person who became indespencaple and set the fall
of the republic and the dawn of the new empire great book very indepth
on 5 October 2014
A very readable biography of Rome's founding father and his struggle to avenge Julius Caesar's assassination and set up the monarchy as we know it. Perhaps not a military genius. he relied on Agrippa for that, his expansionism and the values of Roman life kept the empire and most importantly Rome under control and functioning in all it's glories and catastrophes including the Varus disaster. It's not a military book it focuses on his political style, his wit and the mellowing out of an angry ruthless young man who sent many an opponent to his death and stripped decent men of their money and property, he did not forgive and forget like his father. In his later years he pottered about in his garden wearing a wide brimmed hat [ portrayed by Brian Blessed in I Claudius] as Livia schemed behind his back. Augustus lived to a good age even by modern standards finally passing his crown reluctantly to a morose Tiberius, and the rest, as they say, is history.
on 6 September 2015
Very good and authoritative, but does not give as much atmosphere as some. Not a lot has been written about Augustus, and this author will have done a lot of painstaking research to give us reliable information here.
This book is a remarkable, skilful and a very rich piece of scholarship which is targeted at the general public. It is written in plain and clear English. It is a rather easy read and contains maps, diagrams of Rome, genealogical trees and plenty of photos to support the main text.
It also makes a host of excellent points. To mention just a few, one of these is about the changing faces (and names) of Augustus, or rather Octavius, since this was his real family name. Another is that his reign, for lack of a better word, was hugely successful in bringing peace and ushering in prosperity to such an extent that it would be seen as some kind of "Golden Age" during the next centuries of what became the Roman Empire. A third is the skill with which Adrian Goldsworthy shows Augustus as a highly efficient politician and a master of spin and propaganda. There are also many other important points which are just as well made throughout the book.
One slight reservation, however, is the author's claim that this book is a biography, rather than the "life and times of Augustus". In fact, it is at least both, and perhaps more the later than the former. Note that this is not a problem at all since the picture that the author draws of these "life and times" is a rather fascinating one. He also presents what is essentially the history of Rome and the achievements of the character he is dealing with during this period, with the two (the history and the achievements) being so intertwined that it is difficult to separate them without making the book significantly less entertaining and valuable. So, despite the author's claims, the end result is worthy of praise, even if the contents do not exactly reflect "what it says on the tin." A similar comment can be made about the book's subtitle - "from Revolutionary to Emperor". This is because, strictly speaking, Augustus was neither one nor the other and certainly did his utmost to avoid being portrayed as either.
In fact, as the author admits several times, and can hardly do otherwise, Augustus was a military dictator in disguise who managed the "tour de force" to impose himself and get himself accepted and seen as the "Princeps" - something like "the First Man in Rome", after having defeated Mark Antony.
There are many things that are absolutely remarkable with the character of Augustus, regardless of whether one "likes" him or not. While I cannot drum up much sympathy for Augustus, contrary to the author, his success is absolutely outstanding. Just after Julius Caesar's murder, he was nothing more than nineteen year old with a famous name and some borrowed money yet he managed to become the First man in Rome after defeating all competitors. What is just as remarkable is that for more than forty years afterwards, he remained at the very top and was never seriously challenged. All of this is well shown and described in the book, although the author's strenuous efforts to show that there were essentially no serious plots to unseat him during his reign and that such plots are all speculation from modern historians did not quite convince me. A more measured answer would have been to state that we largely do not know and, even if they were such plots, they seem to have lacked enough support and they all failed.
Another series of comments can be made about the book's structure. Essentially, the first part of the book, from the birth of Octavius to Caesar's assassination, is skilfully used by Goldsworthy to summarise the main events of the period, the career of Julius Caesar and the civil war against Pompey and his partisans. Given his age, Octavius does not appear very much in it but the author gets a chance to present an overview of Rome, its institutions, its Empire and its problems at the time, in addition to the main events. All of this is included within the book's first eighty pages or so without giving the impression of too much content being "crammed in".
The next hundred and thirty pages or so (a bit more in fact) make up parts two and three. They are about the various bouts of civil wars, first against Mark Antony, then against Caesar's assassins and then again, and finally, against Mark Antony after a period of uneasy peace. These are perhaps the weakest and the least convincing parts of the book. Largely because of the author's sympathy for his subject, he can become quite biased at times, and in several ways.
One of these is a tendency to minimise or disparage Mark Antony's military experience and even, in some cases, to omit some episodes entirely, such as Mark Antony's successful retreat across the Alps after his defeat at Mutina. Another is the author's very short and somewhat slanted description of Mark Antony's Parthian campaign, which is presented as an utter disaster. It certainly was a military defeat although Mark Antony did manage to cut his losses. However, and largely thanks to Octavius and his propaganda, it became a political disaster. On the other hand, the two battles of Philippi were all to Mark Antony's credit and certainly not to Octavius' who behaviour could appear shameful during at least the first encounter, and was portrayed as such by his enemies, starting with Mark Antony himself.
What Goldsworthy does show rather well is the outstanding political skill that Caius Octavius and his close associates deployed. While the author is very careful not to use these terms, because they do not exactly generate sympathy, his character was undoubtedly a fantastic propagandist, a master of spin and an arch-manipulator. Although no mean political player himself, Mark Antony does seem to have been severely outclassed in this area, with Octavius and his close associates Agrippa and Maecenas, systematically taking advantage of his blunders and angaging in what was to be a very successful campaign of character assassination that would destroy Mark Antony more efficiently than the battle of Actium.
At times, and with the benefit of hindsight, Mark Antony even seems to have played into their hands, possibly because he underestimated the opposition. This happened at least twice, once when he agreed to lose control of Gaul and its numerous legions and a second time when he handed over some 120 warships to fight Sextus Pompey after Octavius had been disastrously defeated and in exchange of promised troops for the Parthian campaign who never turned up. Here, unfortunately, the author chose not to elaborate on either of these features, possibly because they do not show Octavius in a very positive light.
A rather strange point made by the author is his insistence that Octavius was supremely self-confident from the very beginning. Here again, this might have benefited from some further discussion and clarifications. He was certainly extremely ambitious, but the behaviours of his youth, his ruthlessness, cruelty and savagery, do not give the impression of self-confidence, quite the contrary in fact. This stands in stark contrast with the period after Actium where he could afford to be merciful and benevolent and also make a lot of political capital out of out.
The last two parts of the book (slightly over 260 pages) are the longest and, in my view, also the best and the strongest. They essentially show how Octavius accumulated power and made his position unassailable, but also how he profoundly reformed all of Rome's institutions, and Rome itself. My favourite section is the one showing how Augustus remodelled Rome through his (and Agrippa's) energetic and multi-purpose building programs. While renovating and embellishing Rome, these monuments were also - and perhaps mainly - very strong advertisements of Augustus and his outstanding achievements. These achievements associated him so closely with Rome that they illustrated and justified his titles of "Augustus" and pater patriae". Other superb sections are those showing how Rome's institutions were remodeled while making sure that Augustus kept the true power - and control of the army in particular - in his own hands.
There are also interesting sections on Augustus and his extended family, as he tried to harness their support so that the Empire would be ruled by a team, rather than a single individual. Here again, the author tends to be a bit partial because the success of this policy was at best mixed, and this did not only have to do with his various heirs dying before the "founding father."
Showing how adept Augustus was in manipulating his own image and making it evolve over time is yet another of the book's major strongpoint, with every move carefully stage managed. They ways in which Augustus made his image omnipresent throughout the Empire, through statues, monuments and coins in particular, but also through the right to appeal to him and his multiple trips to the provinces, are also well shown. One other major strongpoint is that, to use Adrian Goldsworthy's expression, the author does show that "once established, he ruled well" and was dedicated to it.
One weakness, perhaps, is that while very correctly stating that his success and the longevity of his rule were, above all, dependent on his ability to "control the army and keep it loyal to him alone", the author contends that all of his achievements were built upon his success as a warlord. In reality, he was not a successful warlord and this is perhaps one of the most interesting paradoxes of the book. His military successes were originated by others, and by Agrippa, his supremely loyal friend, in particular, but Augustus was able to take the credit for these victories, and then do so again and again for the victories of his extended family more generally. One cannot help wondering what would have happened to Octavius had Agrippa died at any time before the defeat of Mark Antony, although the author never really discusses how much of Octavius' success was really attributable to Agrippa's excellent generalshipo and organisational skills.
Four strong stars for a very rich book whose reading I can only recommend, despite the need to take some of the author's statements and positions with "a pinch of salt."
To get a more balanced picture of this rather enigmatic character, I would also recommend reading this book together with one of the other (and less favourable) biographies of Augustus, such as that of Patricia Southern, for instance.